Are ‘Public Opinion’ And A ‘Progressive Media’ Leading India Down The Wrong Road?

Posted by Ashutosh Kumar Mishra in Media, Politics, Society
February 23, 2018

Co-authored by Sudipt Kumar:

The recent outrage both against and for “Padmaavat” by Karni Sena and the others has almost successfully underscored the relatively-critical issues this republic faces. One of the more recent of these issues is the crisis being faced by the Supreme Court of this country.

At the very outset, we would like to make it clear that we do not intend to support the movie’s director. We firmly believe that he is not credible enough – and that his engagement with history can be even slightly considered legit and trustworthy. One of the examples of this is the movie “Bajirao Mastani”, which was blatantly engaged in eulogising one of the most cruel regimes of all time – a period which had been vociferously castigated by Ambedkar, the chief architect of our Constitution, in his writings.

Our foremost worry is the degraded quality of public opinion in this country – after the generous intrusion of social media into our daily lives and the seemingly abusive autonomy it has bestowed upon our countrymen. This is especially so in the case of these last five years, when electoral campaigns started gauging and imposing a ‘common mood’ through social media. The dominant sentiments of our people also started surfacing explicitly – and it portrayed the fact that it had undergone little change in 70 years of political independence. The mood still remains casteist, sectarian and reactionary.

This belief finds substantial justification in several recent events – Gauri Lankesh’s murder, the Supreme Court judges’ press conference, the press conference by Justice Loya’s son, the “Padmaavat” controversy – all of which garnered huge support from large sections of the so-called ‘educated’ middle class. On the other hand, people who dared to question or criticise the problems in these developments were severely criticised.

Before we deal with the social and political aspects of the contemporary situation, it would be prudent to revisit the historicity of the ‘public opinion’. The emergence of the ‘public opinion’ dates back to the 18th century, and is considered to be a product of several historical trends – the Protestant Reformation, the expansion of the merchant class, the growth in the level of literacy and the spread of literature enabled by the printing press.

However, the bifurcation of the ‘public’ and the ‘opinion’ (as two separate concepts) have much older histories – each with a range of meaning that still continue to inform their use in the present day.

Primarily, the idea of an ‘opinion’ was used in two ways:

1. In an epistemological sense, the term ‘opinion’ indicated a particular – and to some extent, inferior – way of knowing. A matter of judgment (an ‘opinion’) can be distinguished from a matter of ‘fact’.

2. The term ‘opinion’ was also used to indicate regard, esteem, or reputation (as in, holding a high opinion of someone).

Both senses relate to the notion of judgment – though in the one case, the emphasis is on the uncertain ‘truth value’ of something believed, whereas in the other case, the emphasis is on the moral dimension of judgment, that is, approval or censure.

The political theories variously seize upon one or the other of these senses of ‘opinion,’ – at times, emphasising cognition and knowledge, and in other cases, moral sensibility or sentiment.

The term ‘public’ comes from the Latin word ‘publicus’ meaning ‘the people’. Just like the word ‘opinion’, it also had several discernable meanings.

The famous French historian, political scientist and  diplomat Tocqueville emphasised that a government of the masses would become a ‘tyranny of the majority’. The point of concern being the extent to which the idea of a public opinion would be regarded as a constructive or baneful force in a democracy. In that context, we believe that political scientists have indeed given more attention to establishing the role of public opinion in the reality of a democratic polity.

It is clear that the role of public opinion varies according to the issue at hand – just as it asserts itself differently in different democracies.  On analysing the numerous histories of policy formation, there can be no sweeping generalisation which will stand its ground in all cases. Perhaps, the most reliable generalisation that can be made here is that the idea of public opinion should not influence the details of most government policies. Rather, it should set the limits within which policymakers must operate. After all, public officials often seek to satisfy a widespread demand (or at least, take it into account in their deliberations) and usually try to avoid making decisions that they believe would be quite unpopular, besides not gaining a wider attention.

The incidents in contemporary India where the governments (in states like Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan) almost surrendered against the alleged vandals (be it in the case of the Jat agitation, the lynching of an elderly person or the recent “Padamaavat” controversy) indicate that tyranny is not possible without mass obedience and dominant public opinion.

A look at the people with access to social media platforms may help us identify the people who form the majority in the virtual world – which, in our opinion, can also permeate (in many cases) to the other, more real spheres of socio-political life in this country. Loosely speaking, a major section of these users also form the burgeoning ‘middle class’, dominated by the so-called upper castes and some of the other dominant castes. In many cases, many people from these classes and castes abuse and demean people from lower castes and other religions for registering their voices, especially on social media. Logic and rationality become rare entities in such interactions. In our opinion, these self-declared ‘champions of religion and/or religious freedom’ should, in no way, be eulogised or allowed to escape through means of appeasement.

Now, if one wants to put forth their observations on the social media outrage, especially against something wrong, it can be repeatedly seen that trolls often stoop down to the most degraded levels. Often, their intention is to simply declare all these commentators and observers as stooges of the ‘communists’ or the ‘imperialists’. On the other hand, the targets of these trolls may well be ordinary people who are just frustrated see the nation in the hands of a new breed of patriots who believe that the neta is the nation and the nation is also all about neta – their neta, of course.

This is where the role of the so-called ‘progressive journalists’ requires a critical appraisal. Surely, one shouldn’t harbor any hopes from the ‘godi media’ – and criticising them, in our opinion, is as useless as reading a book to a buffalo. But we believe that even progressive journalists (who have taken a critical stand on all the above-mentioned incidents) are responsible for misguiding the larger social understanding of the common people of this country.

This misguidance often takes the form of a portrayal of journalists as people with high ethical and moral standings, who work hard for the country to prosper. The misguidance is also visible when they try to make people believe that trolls are ‘fringe elements’ – as people who are not many in number and are mostly fed by political parties. This overarching understanding is being built over to such an extent that most of us tend to believe this.

Sadly, this isn’t true at all, even though it is may be a most comforting lie. For us, the people who are referred to as ‘trolls’ are not fringe elements at all. Rather, they constitute a significant section of our mainstream population, which seems to have historically been casteist, sectarian and oppressive.

The educated lot (precisely the ‘educated’ middle class) has been constantly whining about every one of the societal restructuring projects – be it reservations in jobs in educational institutions for people from the lower castes and women, or the changes in the curricula of schools and universities. All of this is perceived a threat to the ancient social and psychological structure – under the pretext of being harmful to the country. These projects are also often dubbed as some sort of propaganda to malign this great, age-old civilization of ours, which has largely ‘prospered’ by maintaining a discriminatingly-diverse social order.

The priorities and aspirations of this class are grossly misplaced which, unfortunately, is not reflected in the content of even some of the most ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ media houses. Maybe somewhere, they too are unable to completely cut their affiliations from their immediate familial and social settings.


Sudipt Kumar is a doctoral candidate in management studies, at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, West Bengal. He can be reached at sudipt@iitkgp.ac.in and +91-9967073913.

Ashutosh Mishra is an academic associate in the area of general management, policy and strategy, at the Institute of Rural Management Anand, Gujarat. He can be reached at ashutosh@irma.ac.in and +91-7975070765.


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Featured image used for representative purposes only.